In 2014 director Benedict Andrews provided London with one of its most acclaimed productions of recent years, with his boldly devised and thrillingly performed A Streetcar Named Desire. The Australian now returns to both Tennessee Williams and the Young Vic, but his time his staging of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof isn’t matched as completely by his cast. With a lead actor often absent without leave, the result feels merely adequate. And given the material and the talent involved, that comes as something of a shock.
This is the Young Vic’s first production to premier in London’s West End. And it might be that the intimate contemporary space of its home in The Cut would have remained the best place to recreate Williams’s simmering Southern drama.
That said, Andrews and his designer Magda Willi imaginatively replace intimacy with oppressiveness in the Apollo’s proscenium. The back of the stage is lined to the ceiling in what appears to be copper, its burnt sheen giving the impression of a gilded prison wall. Before it, a mostly bare stage, with just a bed at one end, a dressing table the other, a shower in between. Sitting at the audience edge: whisky bottles, and a giant bag of ice. It’s easy to believe that within this space no secret is safe, no privacy assured and the booze will always, magically be replenished, until the characters aren’t the only ones wanting to retch.
The setting is the Mississippi plantation of Big Daddy (Colm Meaney, right) and his brood, gathered for the patriarch’s birthday and to celebrate his supposedly clean bill of health after extensive medical examinations. But Big Daddy and his wife Big Mama (Lisa Palfrey) are the only ones unaware that his “spastic colon” is actually terminal cancer. Front and centre are Maggie (Sienna Miller) and her coldly indifferent, alcoholic husband Brick (Jack O’Connell), whose marital discord is one element of Williams’s bitter dissection of a family made rotten by avarice, lies and self-deceit, a Streetcar writ large and its feuding perhaps a little more recognisable.
It opens with a bang, and the first of many lingering glances of the buff O’Connell naked under the shower, as “Maggie the Cat” prowls energetically around him, dressing and undressing in a state of verbose agitation.
The two stars’ frequent disrobing may snap the audience to attention and titillate the tabloids, but there’s a discernible point to it. The progressively inebriated Brick may be nonchalantly, physically exposed, but his torment is all about concealment – of his guilt and true desires; when Maggie bares her body to him, it’s directly related to her state of mind – mid-play as an act of desperation, finally as a confirmation of her ascendancy.
So the unabashed, adult approach is appropriate enough. Elsewhere the visual vitality of the piece extends to violence, for example Brick’s drunken lunges at his wife (O’Connell has to be a sure-fire aim with his crutch) and a quite beautiful explosion of ice against the copper wall. Unfortunately, all this will come to feel like window-dressing, as a production trying too hard, as so much of the desired emotional intensity is sucked into the black hole of O’Connell’s performance.
Brick is meant to be an enigma; he barely says a word in the first act. But O’Connell plays enigma as absence. The character is feeling guilt, pain, disgust at himself and the mendacity around him, constantly chasing the “click” of peace that the booze will give him. In the first act, there is no indication of that latent emotion; in the second, its expression is merely serviceable.
On screen, notably in Starred Up, the actor has an edgy, volatile quality. Here, it’s as if he’s taking Brick’s inebriation too far. Both his decision making and his woefully inadequate, nay absent Southern accent are constantly alienating. There’s certainly no sense of why so many are in thrall to the man.
Williams constructed his play around two confrontations: Maggie and Brick, as she desperately tries to win back her husband’s affections – in part so that they can stay “in the game” for the dying Big Daddy’s estate; then Brick and Big Daddy, the son admitting the reason for his friend Skipper’s suicide but still refusing to accept his own homosexuality, the father confronted by the truth of his cancer and his family’s deceit in concealing it.
The first is almost all Miller and she carries it well, pacing the stage with charismatic intent, demonstrating that Maggie’s disclosure of her “hideous transformation” into someone “hard, frantic, cruel” isn’t merely words but keenly felt. In the second, Meaney skilfully suggests the ability for a raging egotist and tyrant to have love for at least one person, his son. And the moment when Big Daddy’s investigation of Brick’s issues segues into horror at his own predicament is powerfully done.
Each of these confrontations, however, feels one-sided and therefore half-baked. Interestingly, the most keenly felt drama comes courtesy of the supporting cast, notably Brick’s conspiratorial brother Gooper (Brian Gleeson) and his wife Mae (Hayley Squires), as the avarice-fuelled family tensions build to a crescendo of competitive cruelty.
But by the end, the sheer mess on the Apollo stage – glass, ice, an exploded cake – feels less like the genuine display of family warfare than a director’s act of desperation.
Pictures: Johan Persson
This review first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter